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Getty Images Confronts Online Copyright Infringement With A Carrot – And A Stick

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Stock photography giant Getty Images took a gamble yesterday, releasing 35 million files for free non-commercial and editorial uses. Images are served in a YouTube-style embedder that displays a credit and links back to the licensing page at Getty. How does it work? Look around. I have used the embedder to display a few of Getty's wares in this very post.

The genius of free embeds is to convert the masses of small-fry bloggers that illegally swipe Getty's photos into Getty's own advertising army. If the strategy works, embeds will be more than making lemonade from infringement lemons. It will be a coup of organic ad placement. Millions of domains running Getty ads without Getty having to drop a dime.

The embed code also feeds Getty piles of potentially lucrative user data. As such, the move is symptomatic of the broad shift in online business models towards monetizing data while cheapening content.

What's the catch? Primarily, Getty risks eating their seed corn. Getty's photographers, already a beleaguered lot, aren't paid up front. Instead, they share a shrinking slice of licensing revenue. As the photographers' cut from zero-fee photos is also zero, it is becoming hard to see an incentive for new photographers to sign up when they can earn an equal amount of nothing posting their photos to flickr. I'd not bet on Getty being able to harvest the world's top photography talent, not when free agency is as easy as it has ever been.

Buried in the terms of the embed is perhaps the most intriguing part of the story. Getty's conception of commercial versus non-commercial use has taken a significant shift:

You may only use embedded Getty Images Content for editorial purposes (meaning relating to events that are newsworthy or of public interest). Embedded Getty Images Content may not be used: (a) for any commercial purpose (for example, in advertising, promotions or merchandising) or to suggest endorsement or sponsorship; (b) in violation of any stated restriction; (c) in a defamatory, pornographic or otherwise unlawful manner; or (d) outside of the context of the Embedded Viewer.

This language may not seem bold, but by demarcating only direct advertising use and merchandise as "commercial", Getty opens embedded use to news services. News sites that make money serving advertisements- like, for instance, Scientific American- are no longer considered commercial by Getty.

I find this policy unfair to the professional photographers who spent their own cash to create the images you see here, but that is where Getty has drawn their enforcement line. I suppose they are betting enough of you will click through to make a purchase.

Yes? Have you bought something?

I thought so. Onward.

While Getty is opening up to small users, it is also escalating enforcement against commercial infringers. After years of not filing lawsuits against infringers in spite of blustery demand letters, Getty suddenly filed five suits this January. Where there is a carrot, there is often a stick.

A few weeks ago, Getty Images Inc. went on a lawsuit spree of sorts, filing federal copyright-infringement complaints over images it claims have been used without its permission. Court records show the Seattle-based stock-photography giant filed five single-image lawsuits in the month of January alone. The legal complaints are virtually identical, employing a cookie-cutter template differentiated largely by the names of the defendants and images in question.

I suspect these two policy changes are not concurrent by accident. Getty has the same frustratingly persistent infringement problems that plague all online content creators. By granting the little fish a pass, they free up resources to more effectively counter the rule-breaking sharks. I would not want to be one of Getty Image's corporate infringers in 2014.

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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